iTunes App Store shows strengths, weaknesses of a walled garden

Fraser Speirs, the developer behind the top-shelf iPhone Flickr interface "Exposure", echoes the complaints we've heard from many developers about the iTunes App Store:

Apple requires that every single update to every app go through the same vetting process (although who knows exactly what this involves?). I submitted Exposure 1.0.1 to the App Store last Friday and, five days later, one version is "In Review". The other is still, mysteriously, "waiting for upload", even though I already did.

If Apple can't guarantee a maximum 24 hour review process, they should drop it.

Walled gardens aren't entirely without usefulness. (Yes, I said that.) There's something to be said for being able to buy a bunch of software with a single account. But the approval process to push software to the App Store isn't just slowing down updates for customers, it could also put developers and users at risk. As Speirs explains, if there were a serious security flaw in an iPhone application, an approval process of several days could be a catastrophe.

I really like the App Store, but Apple needs to invert the approval process. If a developer has shown that they've uploaded quality code in the past, they should be able to push updates with a minimum of fuss. If there's a problem later — and it appears the only problems Apple is scanning for are SDK violations — then nuke the program and the developer account.

The DRM-ladened App Store is just one of five reasons the Free Software Foundation doesn't want you to buy an iPhone. Three more points: iPhone uses and endorses DRM; the iPhone doesn't play Ogg Vorbis (really?); the iPhone isn't the only option. I have a few incidental quibbles with most of those but I get where they're coming from.

One complaint, however, is just flat out wrong: "iPhone exposes your whereabouts and provides ways for others to track you without your knowledge."

First of all, the iPhone OS now prompts you every time it is about to query Core Location for your coordinates. (I actually wish it wouldn't, as I think that hitting a button or opening an application built specifically around location services should be approval enough.) Secondly, iPhone applications don't run in the background, making passive tracking only possible if there were an SDK-violating application available via the iTunes App Store — ironically the walled nature of the DRM-infested App Store makes this rogue tracking software claim even less possible.

As for the iPhone exposing your whereabouts? I kind of think most people knew that already, since that's the whole point of GPS on a phone. And guess what? All cell phones now have GPS or a GPS-like tracking system inside as mandated by the federal government. Most don't give you access to that data like the iPhone does.

I hate the vetting process of the App Store quite a bit, but don't salt a perfectly reasonable argument with factually murky paranoia.

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  1. I’m not a big fan of Apple in general, but I totally agree with Joel on the utility of a walled garden.

    Firefox’s extension repository on Mozilla is a semi-walled garden in that sense. You can host the extensions anywhere you want to, but if you want the visibility of the repository, then you need to go through them. The review process takes about 3-4 days, in my experience. The upside is that it gives the users more confidence about the quality of the extensions.

  2. I agree. The walled garden is great, if you’re using it to continually improve the software. I understand that it ruins the iPhone’s reputation to have shitty software out in the wild…personally I’m much less tolerate of phone crashes than computer crashes. Still, let (known) developers put whatever they want in the software store and implement some sort of automated tracking system…

    Have two classes of iPhone users: people willing to live with beta software and those who only want apple approved stuff. Give users a tick box in their App Store settings: “Allow Use of Untested Apps”

    The beta users can download iffy software, then the phone will report back to the store if the software crashes and people can also report buggy behavior. It’d be way more effective than Apple’s limited internal testing…which obviously sucks, given how many of my apps are crashy.

    If X% of users complain about the software or experience crashes, or if it turns out to violate Apple’s terms, remove it from the store immediately, notify the developer AND send people with that program a warning with the option of automatically deleting it off their phone (or remotely delete it if it’s in violation of Apple’s terms of use).

    If it works great for everyone for a week or two, upgrade it to “premium” status.

    You could even give developers the option of making the software cheaper in it’s initial testing period, to encourage folks to take a risk on buggy stuff.

  3. About the location thing: you can make it go away (on a per-app basis) by quickly double-tapping the “ok” (whatever the label is ;)) button. I suspect that it has to ask for European privacy reasons, so I’m kinda cool with that.

  4. You’re misreading the complaint about the location services. The FSF’s beef with those is not about the app store apps — it’s with the OS itself. Apple could absolutely decide to write the iPhone OS such that it surreptitiously reported your location. Do you trust Apple to not do that? Sure, but the fact remains that it’s physically possible for them to do so without your knowledge or consent, because it’s closed-source.

    Saying that this is no worse than the rest of the industry is really no defense. Being no worse than a gang of liars and scoundrels doesn’t acquit you of being a scoundrel yourself.

    Basically, it seems to me that this “5 reasons” document is more of a callout than anything else. They’re saying “hey Apple, you may be cultivating this anti-DRM, pro-consumer image, but you haven’t followed through with action, so we say it’s BS marketing and nothing more”.

  5. Walled gardens have their advantages; but be very, very suspicious of anybody whose walled garden is also a walled prison.

    For anybody to set up a list of apps(or anything else) that have their extra special approval(with the maker of the platform in question being rather the obvious party) is all well and good. Makes it easy for people who don’t want to take risks to not take risks. The trouble begins when people aren’t allowed outside of the list, as in this case. Then it is pretty clearly more about controlling the user than about serving the user.

    All you need to make life easy for people who don’t like risk is a “default suggestion list”. Walled gardens are prisons, by design, every time.

  6. Actually, the entire point of having a GPS on a phone for me would be so expose my location TO ME, should I get lost. Exposing it to other people is utterly stupid unless you expressly set out to do so.

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